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From BCN  to BCRNE

Called the BCN threat – Bacteriological or Biological, Chemical, Nuclear, – during the Cold War, we now call it the BCRNE threat –  Biological, Chemical, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosive.

Beyond the change of acronym, it is also a paradigm shift that has been achieved: the state threats “mass destruction weapons” have been replaced by the terrorist threats “weapons of mass disruption”

What does all this mean?

1 From BCN to BCRNE   

1.1 Nuclear Risk

The nuclear risk can only be a state risk, given its complexity. The explosion of a nuclear bomb produces several effects: thermal, mechanical (blast effect), radioactive, electromagnetic. Radiations are numerous: alpha, beta, gamma and neutrons. Neutron radiation, in particular, is characteristic of a military nuclear weapon. The consequences are very devastating. In Hiroshima, on 6 August 1945, 70,000 people were killed. Most of them died in fires following the heat wave. The others were seriously burned and many others died  years later as a result of radiation (a total of 140,000 deaths are reported). In Nagasaki, on 9 August 1945, 60 to 80,000 people were killed. We are dealing here with a weapon of mass destruction (WMD).

1.2 Radiological risk

The major development of the 1990s was the taking into account of the radiological threat, resulting from the decomposition of the nuclear threat. Since alpha and beta radiation could be contained with relative ease, only neutron and gamma radiation was considered to be the radiological component of the nuclear threat. Exposure to a radioactive source does not cause any mechanical effects but rather irradiation and/or contamination with radioactive materials.

Airborne particles can cause external contamination – deposition on the skin – and internal contamination – the radioelement can enter the body by inhalation, ingestion or transcutaneous passage.

The effects are not immediately visible.

This risk is related to the dirty bomb concept. An explosive device can spread a radioactive source around it. How can radioisotopes be obtained?  Millions of sources are used worldwide (industry, hospitals, research). It is important to know that in the USA a source disappears every day (loss, abandonment, theft).  In the European community 70 sources disappear every year. Finally, several radioisotope thermoelectric generators – which use energy from their own decay of radioactive materials to produce electricity and were widely used as an autonomous energy source – have been flooded at sea for various reasons and at least one, lost in 1987 near Cape Nizki de Sakhaline, has still not been recovered. Also in Russia thermoelectric generators for lighthouses in isolated regions (former USSR) would have disappeared, causing the irradiation of 3 loggers in December 2001 in Georgia.

Dirty bombs were actually developed: in November 1995 in Moscow a case containing cesium was discovered in the Ismailovsky park. In Chechnya in December 1998, a container filled with radioactive materials attached to an explosive mine was disarmed.

Radiation can also be used for poisoning.  We will remember the assassination with polonium-210 of Alexander Litvinenko, former agent of the Russian secret service opposing Vladimir Putin.

1.3 Biological risk

It is the use of bacteria, viruses and toxins.

Contamination is carried out by droplets, aerosols or powder. In the case of transmissible infectious diseases, transmission from one individual to another represents a system of disease amplification (smallpox, plague). In the case of toxins that are poisons synthesized by biological organisms, there is no transmission from one person to another but the toxic power and infinitely greater than any other chemical. Example: ricin

There are 3 classes of biological agents

Class A. Easy to produce and disseminate, transmissible from one person to another, high lethality, impact on public health, panic and social disruption assured. These include anthrax, smallpox and botulinum toxin.  As well as plague, haemorrhagic fevers, tularemia.

Class B. Easy to disseminate, low lethality. These are Q fever, Staphylococcus enterotoxin B, Salmonella, Shigella, cholera…).

Class C. Easily produced and disseminable, not lethal, but with modifiable potential. This is the case of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis and many viruses (Hantavirus, yellow fever…).

All these diseases have an incubation period and are therefore reported at a distance from the initial contamination. Identification methods in the field are currently developping.

1.4 Chemical hazard

We are talking about industrial chemicals and specially synthesized products: warfare agents.

Chemical action acts on biological processes and leads to death or permanent or temporary disability. They are in gaseous, liquid and solid form.

Gaseous (suffocating agents, hydrocyanic acid (Zyclon B), cyanogen chloride). Penetration is by inhalation, persistence is non-existent but they can be trapped in clothing.

Liquids emit vapour. The danger is therefore twofold. These are G-type neurotoxic (sarin, tabin, soman), vesicants such as yperite and lewisite.

Others are liquid or solid and can be diffused by aerosol (inhalation, transcutaneous). Among them, the very persistent VX.

Chemical risk includes risks related to industrial activity. One remembers the great industrial disasters of Feyzin (France) on 4 January 1966, Seveso (Italy) on 10 July 1976, Bhopal (India) on 3 December 1984 and Toulouse (France) on 21 September 2001. Smaller accidents are very frequently recorded.

1.5 Explosive hazard

The car bombings had already been shown to be effective in Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. Suicide attacks linked to the 2nd intifada in the Middle East raised the question of the integration of explosives in WMD. Even though explosives are primarily chemical products, they have been individualized to form risk E. The terrorist risk by explosives is therefore very real. Explosive attacks are the most likely and common, because they are the easiest to carry out. Explosives detection has therefore become a priority for the security services.

However, it was not until after the attacks of September 11 and the American power’s full consideration of the terrorist threat as a whole that specialists began to speak of nuclear, radiological, biological, chemical and explosive (BCRNE) threats.

2. Semantic change or paradigm shift?

Until then, WMD appeared to be regalian weapons whose use was conceivable only in the context of conflicts between States. Since the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks in Japan (1995), the threat of the use of chemical or biological agents by terrorists has been taken seriously and has become one of the driving forces behind domestic and international security efforts.

At present BCRNE threats therefore apply to terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction (MDW) become more Weapons of Mass Disruption.

Going further, considering that MDW are now clearly linked to terrorism, any individual in possession of an improvised explosive device or behind the wheel of a suicide vehicle would de facto be a”terrorist” and no longer a combatant.

Moreover, if we want to combat the proliferation of MDW, we must clearly include explosives and therefore closely monitor industrial products such as ammonium nitrate, which is mainly used as a chemical fertilizer.

3. The Treaties

The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons (prohibits use but not stockpiling). During the 2nd world war no belligerent certainly employed it because of the dissuasive character of the constituted stocks.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention  was signed in 1972 by 175 states. No verification is planned, as the US has opposed it. This treaty was not always respected: the Russians developed Biopreparat between 1970 and 1990 although they were signatories.

The opening for signature of the CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention) in 1993 marked the end of the arms race and 192 states signed it. The OPCW, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is responsible for inspecting chemical sites.

Both treaties prohibit the production, stockpiling and use of chemical and biological weapons (except for protection purposes).

There is no convention on the prohibition of nuclear weapons because they calibrate the global rank of their holders. No convention on the use of radioactive materials either.


Gaël Marchand. De la menace NRBC à la menace NRBCE : glissement sémantique ou changement de perspective ?

Sylvain Degraeve. La menace NRBC et les réponses de la chaîne de secours? Session tutoriale N°9 SFRP. Congrès de Nantes 14-15-juin 2005

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